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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

December 10, 2007 at 9:00 AM

Mariners needs

Nothing like a beautiful Monday morning to try to scare you all with some sabermetric numbers. Seriously, a lot of these numbers make sense, so there’s no point being frightened by them or trying to pretend they don’t exist. Especially when it comes to figuring out the Mariners and what they have to do to get better.
First, let’s take a look at OPS+ and ERA+ — which we all learned a little more about during the 2007 season. Most of you by now know about the simple OPS (on-base-plus slugging percentage) stat — which is an easy, quick tool used to determine the game’s top hitters. Well, all OPS+ does is factor in the difference in ballparks around the game and measure all hitters as equally as possible to determine how well they really did. So, the Mariners, playing half their games in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field, will be looked at just as equally as the Red Sox in their Fenway Park bandbox.
We won’t get into all the formulas used to calculate the numbers. Only the end result, which is based on 100 being the definition of average. So, a final number of 110 means a particular player had an OPS that was truly 10 percent higher than his peers when all ballpark differences are accounted for. An OPS+ of 90 means it was 10 percent below the average of all the hitters in the game. Simple enough?
Great. Same thing applies to ERA+ — which obviously is a measurement for earned run average and how it relates to the rest of baseball. Not as daunting as it looks, right? We’ll leave the formulas and calculations to the scientists for now and simply concentrate on the final stats themselves.
So, how good were the Mariners as a team in 2007?
They had an OPS+ of 104 and an ERA+ of 91 — meaning their offense was four percent better than average, while their pitching (and defense) was nine percent less than average.
We all knew the team had a pretty good offense for stretches. But this final number suggests it really wasn’t all that great.
Ichiro was at 122 (remember, power-hitting isn’t his thing, so he gets penalized by these types of stats), Raul Ibanez at 121, Jose Guillen at 116 and Adrian Beltre at 112 as the highest producers. Richie Sexson was at 84, Yuniesky Betancourt at 93 and Jose Lopez at 71, so you can see where the numbers got dragged down.
As for pitching, we all figured it was pretty lousy outside of the bullpen and that was mostly true. Here’s how the five main starters did:
Felix Hernandez 110
Miguel Batista 101
Jarrod Washburn 100
Jeff Weaver 70
Horacio Ramirez 61
Yes, Hernandez was above average — though hardly ace-like. Batista and Washburn were very average. Weaver and Ramirez beyond terrible. For a comparison, let’s look at how the 66-win Tampa Bay Devil Rays did as a starting rotation:
Scott Kazmir 130
James Shields 117
Edwin Jackson 78
Andy Sonnanstine 77
Jason Hammel 74
Hmm. So, the Rays had two starters who were clearly above average (much more so than Hernandez), with three below average arms — though none as awful as Ramirez and Weaver. Which rotation would you take? Me too, especially when you consider the Rays just added Matt Garza and his 118 to the equation. So, here’s how the new rotation shapes up.
Kazmir 130
Garza 118
Shields 117
Jackson 78
Sonnanstine 77
Yes, much better than the M’s. Factor in the fact they are all young and likely to improve with age and they are eons ahead of the M’s at this stage.
Seattle’s bullpen is the only thing that kept the M’s within 10 percent of average last season.
J.J. Putz 314
George Sherrill 183
Sean Green 113
Ryan Rowland-Smith 110
Brandon Morrow 105
Eric O’Flaherty 97
Those were the six main guys and most teams will take a bullpen like that. You can understand, obviously, why the Mariners would be reluctant to part with George Sherrill in any deal that already contains Brandon Morrow. The bullpen is already losing Morrow to the rotation or to a trade. Take Sherrill out of there as well and the late-inning certaintly becomes less certain.
But how would the rotation look with, say, Erik Bedard in there along with Japanese free-agent Hiroki Kuroda? Let’s assume that Kuroda could be a solid No. 3 starter like Miguel Batista was in 2007. Let’s say he’s dependable and average.
Bedard 146
Hernandez 110
Kuroda 101
Batista 101
Washburn 100
All of a sudden, that starting rotation looks leaps and bounds better than what the Mariners put out there in 2007. All-around better than the Rays, albeit with less of a shelf life outside of the top-two starters.
That’s why we see so many arguments raging on this site — and others — about what the Mariners need to do next season. And over how much they should sacrifice. If they hang on to Sherrill, their entire pitching staff — outside of perhaps one or two guys — appears destined to be average or above average. But deal Sherrill and Morrow, and all of a sudden, that sure-thing bullpen becomes less of a sure thing.
Others will argue that team defense needs to be improved and will make up for the lack of starting pitching on some levels. This is obviously a true statement. Assuming Adam Jones is as good as advertised, having him in one of the corner outfield spots is a defensive upgrade over the Jose Guillen-Raul Ibanez tandem of last season.
Trouble is, that solution — keeping Jones — offers little in the way of playoff hope for next season. Throw the same lousy starting rotation out there with improved defense in one corner outfield spot and the M’s may win a few more games, especially if Hernandez keep improving. They may even win a few more than that if Kuroda does put up an ERA+ of 100 or better instead of departed free agent Weaver’s 70.
Then again, it’s worth remembering that the M’s were viewed as having “outperformed” their runs for/runs against “Pythagorean” numbers all season long. Perhaps all those “added” wins from Jones in right field and Kuroda in the rotation will be mitigated by the simple laws of a somewhat “fluke” Mariners team coming back down to Earth.
The addition of Bedard and Kuroda would obviously make the M’s a better pitching staff and almost certainly lead to fewer runs allowed even with the equivalent of Guillen/Ibanez in the outfield corners. The question is how much better? And whether the M’s can hope to improve on that defense with a free agent signing, assuming Jones is dealt to acquire Bedard.
It would appear, on the face of it, that adding Bedard-Kuroda is the quickest way for the team to contend. Again, much would depend on who is dealt in return, and who is added to improve team defense. An offensive boost (hello Richie Sexson, Jose Lopez) would also offset some of the need to cut down on the number of runs allowed. It’s all about creating separation between the runs for and runs against. Can Sexson get better? Entirely possible based on his career to this point. Possible, if not probable. Lopez? Also possible.
Someone will have to offset Guillen’s lost contribution, though.
The bottom line? Nothing about the Mariners is certain at this point. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but all of you are right. There is no easy answer to the problems facing this team. The safest way to go about things would probably be to hold on to Jones and Morrow and hope that possibly — three years or so down the road — this team’s young core can develop into a contender.
But that’s three years away. In the real world, the team is being run by real people who will likely lose their jobs unless things are turned around more quickly than that. In that case, the quickest way to go would be in adding Kuroda and Bedard and hoping the other factors we’ve mentioned — defense and offense — can both be improved somehow and some way. It’s a tall order.
What would I do if I was in Bill Bavasi’s shoes? Make the Bedard deal. My feeling is it’s easier to take a good rotation and good bullpen and work at filling in the other parts than it is to take a lousy rotation, great bullpen and better defense at one corner outfield spot and try to do the same things.
This winter is one of those rare occasions when a team can seriously transform a starting rotation overnight — at least on-paper. I’ve already shown you that, above. And as good as Seattle’s pitching could look down the road, with Hernandez, Morrow, and Phillippe Aumont in the rotation, if I’m Bavasi, I just look at my own team’s history and remember that nothing is guaranteed. Remember Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Ryan Franklin and all the others who were supposed to be anchoring this team’s starting five by now? Three years is an awfully long time to wait while the rest of the AL’s “contenders” keep stockpiling some frightening rosters.
No, this is not a slam dunk. But in my view, it’s likely Seattle’s only shot at the basket in 2008, 2009 and maybe beyond.

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